Journal archives for March 2015

March 19, 2015

Scuba diving in Fiji with Tropical Cyclone Pam

I’m just back from my eighth scuba dive trip to Fiji aboard the Nai’a. It was a good trip, and quite a bit different from previous ones. Once again this was a joint New England Aquarium / Monterey Bay Aquarium adventure, with people from both coasts.

Six of us New Englanders arrived in Los Angeles early and spent a day visiting Quality Marine, the largest marine ornamental fish importer/wholesaler. I was impressed with their operation and the direction the industry has gone in since I largely quit keeping saltwater aquariums a decade ago. They regularly inspect their collectors and track individual fish through the process all the way to the pet store. We also visited the Cabrillo Aquarium, a small aquarium run by the city of Los Angeles that has some nice exhibits of local marine life.

We all made it to Fiji on time, in spite of the airlines’ efforts to strand the four people flying through Hawaii. One person’s luggage didn’t make her flight, and only got to us 5 days into the cruise. It is a joy to return to the Nai’a and her friendly crew, who greeted many of us by name. Josh and Amanda are the cruise directors, and ably handled things for us, a little different than our last visit which was their first cruise as they were still learning the ropes.

The big news of the trip was Tropical Cyclone Pam. As soon as we boarded, we were told that we would not do a checkout dive the first afternoon as usual, but instead would immediately cruise halfway across Fiji to Namena for the next morning. This was to put some distance between us and the as-yet-unnamed storm forming north of Vanuatu, to the north-west of Fiji. We got in four days of diving on the best sites of the Bligh Waters before the storm got close enough to force us to seek shelter in protected bays on the east side of Viti Levu. We then got to do muck diving in Fiji. Lots of silt, visibility of 8-20 feet, and only a handful of fish species were the norm for many of the following dives. Captain Jonathan got storm updates every six hours, which he passed around in the Salon for us to read. Most southern hemisphere storms move to the southeast, which would have put us in the path, but this one moved very slowly, and to the southwest. It grew to category three, and killed 44 people on Vanuatu. So our itinerary was figured out day by day based on the weather. A couple of afternoons we did venture out to ocean reefs. While conditions underwater were good there, getting in and out of the skiffs was difficult and dangerous, so we did not do too much of that. One morning on the top deck of the Nai’a we discovered a sea bird, a Sooty Tern, looking very ragged grounded by the storm. While it was nice to be able to see one up close, the bird did not survive.

The diving our first four days lived up to Fiji’s reputation. Eighty foot visibility, luscious reefs with clouds of colorful fish and colored bushy soft corals. My very first dive of the trip, at Grand Central Station in Namena, I managed to find and photograph two of my target fish for the trip: Twospot Slender Hogfish are yellow and pink wrasses wandering the wall below one hundred feet, and Splendid Garden Eels were in a small colony on the sand flat at 93 feet, looking like they have gilded gold bands. We saw Grey Reef Sharks and White-tipped Reef Sharks on many dives, and some people saw a Hammerhead Shark. Anemones had families of clownfish in them, and pairs of butterflyfish fluttered about the reef.

I am working on getting photos of all of the species of reef fish found in Fiji. This is a multi-year project that I’m three quarters of the way through. Before this trip I was hoping to find a way to get into some environments different from where we usually dive, but wasn’t expecting to have half the trip in mucky lagoons and bays. We saw lots of juvenile fishes there, especially young butterflyfish. There were damselfishes, groupers, and wrasses that aren’t common on clear reefs. We snorkeled near mangroves where we saw Silver Biddies and Crescent-banded Grunters. Occasionally we found nice reefs with a variety of life, and sometimes we just found silt and a few fish.

This trip had more ghost pipefish than usual; we had Hairy Ghost Pipefish on six different dives, also Ornates, Halimedas, and the usual Robust and Slender. We saw Naia Pipefish a couple of times. Squadrons of Reef Squid were encountered. Very few octopuses were seen, though a cuttlefish was encountered by some. On a night dive I saw my first Frogfish in Fiji.

As usual, we ran our own lecture series on the boat, covering not just marine biology but the specialties of our participants including robotics, storms, climate change, and other topics. Our village visit was at a village the Naia had never been to before, though Mitra, Naia’s chef, is from that area. They performed a kava ceremony and meke dances for us and were very friendly. Some of the villagers came back to the boat that evening and sang with our crew until very late while consuming gallons of kava.

After the strong winds and rough seas we saw while sheltering on the east side of Viti Levu, we wondered what we would encounter back on the west at the end of the trip. However, there was no damage or even downed palm trees around Loutoka or Nadi. And the weather was clearing then, so the next cruise will likely have decent conditions.

Overall it was a good trip, though not a good introduction to Fiji for the three of us who had not been before. We’re already talking about our next trip. During 34 dives I logged 419 species of fish, of which 23 were new for me. And I took 3000 photos, some of my favorites are online at
https://www.flickr.com/photos/14233971@N04/sets/72157650980923387

Posted on March 19, 2015 14:37 by maractwin maractwin | 0 comments | Leave a comment

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